Opinion polls suggest that it is now likely that National will lead the next government, supported in some shape or form by ACT.
When looking at the likely make-up of such a government much of the focus so far has been on National and who the top team supporting Christopher Luxon could be. Little attention has yet been paid to ACT, what role it might play, and its key personnel.
But as Prime Minister Hipkins pointed out last week ACT is likely to be a substantial player in any future National-led government. Hipkins’ comment was highly partisan and primarily aimed at raising fears in voters’ minds at that prospect, but is relevant, nonetheless.
ACT’s co-founder Sir Roger Douglas also weighed in this week saying that he no longer supports the Party because it now represents only the wealthy and is not committed anymore to the radical tax reform and personal responsibility-based welfare reform that he had campaigned for.
Against that backdrop, Hipkins’ politically charged comment is nonetheless a fair one. What does ACT stand for, and what role will seek to play in a future government? And, as Hipkins questions and hopes, should voters be worried?
Apprehension of Douglas
Douglas also has a point. Since its early principled days ACT has vacillated between a watered-down version of its original self, and right-wing populism, without the mad Trumpian tinge now the preserve of New Zealand First. ACT’s approach to tax reform is now purely about cutting taxes, rather than the integrated approach to tax and welfare reform that Douglas had sought from the time he was Minister of Finance in the fourth Labour government.
On law and order, ACT’s approach is sheer middle-American populism, from the reintroduction of the failed “Three Strikes” policy, through to dealing with teenage offenders in adult Courts. Then there is the call for a referendum on the role and place of the Treaty of Waitangi, as naked an appeal to the redneck vote, as ever there was one.
Yet for all that, ACT has never been rated higher in public support than it does today.
As ACT Leader David Seymour observes, it is obviously doing something right. There was speculation after Luxon became National’s leader, that he would eat into ACT’s new support base, but this has not happened. If anything, ACT’s support has grown since then.
Challenges for National
The upshot is that National’s only route to office at the coming election will be via ACT.
That will not be without its challenges.
On current polling, ACT MPs in the next Parliament could comprise up to a third of the governing bloc. ACT has stated its strong preference for a clean coalition with National, with an agreed government programme to pursue during the three-year term.
However, if it cannot get agreement on that, ACT has said it will not hesitate to sit outside government on the crossbenches and force National into the cumbersome process of having to negotiate support for every issue, on a case-by-case basis. That would make governing extremely difficult and would almost certainly precipitate an early election.
For that reason, the comprehensive government coalition agreement ACT is seeking is unlikely to be as extreme as Hipkins and others suggest.
ACT’s major focus is likely to be on regulatory reform, improving the overall processes of government decision-making, stronger accountability for public servants for policy delivery, and removal of petty rules and restrictions across the board.
With that focus established and recognised as ACT’s distinct bastion, the rest of a National/ACT government programme will probably have a more traditional National flavour to it, although getting ACT to compromise sufficiently will still be fraught with difficulty.
Large group of Ministers
There would be likely up to six ACT Ministers sitting around the Cabinet table in a National/ACT Cabinet – just under a third of the total. That would be the biggest group of Ministers ever from a single support Party in Cabinet and will create its own tensions.
In that eventuality, Luxon cannot afford to get into the game-playing that previous National and Labour Cabinets did when faced with a sizeable bloc of New Zealand First Ministers trying to work around, rather than with, them on critical issues.
ACT Ministers faced with such behaviour would be far more likely to walk away altogether to sit on the crossbenches. Luxon’s business executive skills will be helpful in managing this process, but they are unlikely to make up completely for his lack of political experience.
The question then arises as to which ACT MPs could become Ministers.
Seymour’s easy response that all his MPs are capable is as predictable as it is banal.
Aside from Seymour and his capable deputy Brooke van Velden, two other ACT MPs do stand out as likely Cabinet contenders, based on their performance over the last three years – Nicole McKee and Karen Chhour. But while ACT has worked in a very disciplined way in Opposition over the last three years, it could be a different story if they are in government where all their key leaders are likely to be distracted from day-to-day Caucus management because they are too busy as Ministers.
There is no doubting ACT’s Tigger-like commitment and enthusiasm.
Seymour has been impressive over the last term of Parliament, shaping his team into an effective Parliamentary unit. As it stands on the verge of potentially its greatest political triumph to date, ACT will need all these attributes, and even more discipline and focus, if it is to succeed as a government partner.
More importantly, if it is to succeed in government, National needs to ensure the partnership with ACT works effectively. Otherwise, it could be looking for new friends in three years’ time.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from December 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly Column.